Politics & Policy

Presidential Malpractice

President Jimmy Carter boards Air Force One (Library of Congress)
Obama’s problem, like Carter’s, is mistaken beliefs. But unlike Carter, he won’t wake up to reality.

NBC’s Chuck Todd got a good deal of attention for warning that “[Obama is] on the precipice of doing Jimmy Carter–​like damage to the Democratic brand on foreign policy.”

As distasteful as it is to defend Jimmy Carter, this isn’t fair to him. Carter, it’s true, earned a reputation for weakness, but he wasn’t blind to reality. Carter entered office urging the nation to get over its “inordinate fear of Communism,” and he did his best to alienate friends and coddle enemies. But when the Soviet Union’s tanks rumbled into Kabul in 1979, he said, “The action of the Soviets made a more dramatic change in my opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done in the previous time I’ve been in office.”

A slow learner? Definitely, but not an utterly intractable ideologue (which he has since become). He ramped up military spending, delayed consideration of SALT II, announced that the U.S. would boycott the Moscow Olympics, and took other steps to reflect his new understanding.

It wasn’t personal weakness that made President Carter such a disastrous commander-in-chief. It was mistaken beliefs. By the time the scales fell from his eyes, a great deal of damage had been done; millions of people, from Iran to Nicaragua to Afghanistan, had fallen under the rule of despotic regimes, and the U.S. was less safe.

Obama is now spoken of as Carteresque in his weakness. But, again, it isn’t so much a matter of character as it is a reflection of mistaken ideas. Obama is particularly rigid in his adherence to leftist beliefs, but he is hardly an outlier in the Democratic party. Democrats tend to believe that the natural state of the world is peace, and that if the U.S. is modest and unthreatening, it will be rewarded with happy allies and docile adversaries. Obama’s conviction that the U.S. should act in support of allies only in very limited circumstances, and should seek accommodation with adversaries like Russia and Iran, is widely shared in the Democratic party.

Even the appearance of the Islamic State couldn’t shake Obama’s belief that wars are “optional” and that, as he said in 2013, “This war, like all wars, must end.” As if the enemy doesn’t get a vote. Asked in January whether the specter of the Islamic State didn’t cast doubt on the wisdom of pulling every last U.S. soldier out of Iraq, Obama waved it off by calling them the “JV” team.

With the exception of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the foreign-policy decisions this president has made have ranged from harmful to disastrous: the failure to speak up for the millions of Iranians who protested the stolen election of 2009, the drastic cuts in military spending, the failure to provide support for Ukraine in its war with Russia, the hostile pressure on Israel, the blind pursuit of a grand bargain with Iran, the Benghazi debacle, the betrayal of Poland and the Czech Republic on missile defense, the undermining of the “surge” in Afghanistan by announcing a hard withdrawal date, and the total disaster in Iraq and Syria.

All were supported by congressional Democrats, until the beheadings. Now, with public opinion scaring Democratic candidates, the president has finally agreed to deliver some tough talk and air strikes. But, as with Carter, it’s too late. By dithering about Syria, by drawing red lines and then backing away, the president has inflicted deep damage not just on the region but on American credibility. It required breathtaking gall for the president to list “removing and destroying” Syria’s “declared” chemical weapons as one of his triumphs. Is that a joke? The New York Times reports that Syria has used chlorine gas as recently as April. Regarding the supposed elimination of chemical weapons, “Western governments continue to express concern that Syria did not declare its whole stockpile . . . ”

The president who disdained the war in Iraq for violating “our values” now proposes to make war only by air power — as if that sanitizes it. In fact, it will cause more deaths of innocent people than using ground troops would. (Ask Israel, which could have saved many IDF soldiers by simply bombing Hamas.) Worse, it will almost certainly fail, because the president adamantly refuses to match means with ends.

Obama vowed to “end wars.” Critics pointed out that the quickest way to end wars is to lose them. Obama’s grudging decision to use force against the Islamic State will just prolong the losing.

— Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. © 2014 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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